Thursday, September 15, 2011

Liturgical Thoughts: Twisting the Mass

Most people are familiar with the game Twister: A plastic sheet, printed with a series of brightly colored circles, is spread out on the floor. Players take turns placing a hand or a foot on one of the circles as determined by spinning a wheel designed to randomly choose the next move for each participant. The object of the game is to see who can “twist” their body into an ever more complex configuration without collapsing onto the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, thus eliminating themselves from the game. As with any game, Twister can be great fun in an appropriate setting. The Catholic Mass is not such a venue.

Now, to be fair, I have not yet seen the colorful Twister mat laid out on the floor of any Catholic parish, but I have seen some dreadful contortions and bizarre body knots undertaken in the middle of Mass that would surely win the aforementioned game. I refer to the practice of holding hands during the Our Father.

Hand-holding during Mass seems to be a regional phenomenon (at least from my limited observation). I have been to Mass at various churches from Nebraska and Minnesota, to Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania and across New England. I have also talked to others who have attended Catholic parishes in regions where I have not. From what I can tell, holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is most often encountered in the Midwest and South. So this is not a universally accepted practice. It is obviously a culturally influenced addition to the liturgy.

From what I have read and heard, Catholic hand-holding began in the folksy 1970s, when guitar Masses and the Protestant-izing of the Church was in full swing after Vatican II. During this time many unofficial changes and experimentations were done to the Liturgy (with or without approval from Rome or local bishops). I gather that the practice in question was a grassroots movement, primarily a spontaneous act of the people, but perhaps also encouraged by certain priests or “liturgists” as the movement gained ground. Today there are even hand-holding circles on the altar, with the priest in the middle and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and servers flanking him.

But the real show to watch is the people in the seats. Arms stretch out across pews, one hand behind the back, across the aisle, over the shoulder…one foot on red, the other on blue, and spin the wheel for the next challenge. Can you hold that position until the concluding doxology?

What irritates me most about this practice is not the hand-holding itself (although I personally am not a full-contact worshiper - I prefer to keep my hands and arms to myself), what really frustrates me is the broad assumption among these hand-holders that their practice is a required action within the liturgy. I have received more than one dirty look and snooty reaction from those to whom I have denied my hand during the Lord’s Prayer. They seem to believe that I am the one going against the rubrics. But the reality is that hand-holding during this point of the Mass is a distortion of the real purpose behind the Our Father. Hand-holding and the Our Father point to two different Christian concepts…

I have asked some of these hand-holding Christians why they choose to participate in this game of faux-Twister and they usually respond by saying that holding hands demonstrates our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ - the whole congregation linked together as one, (hands-across-America style). The problem is that the Our Father is not that sort of prayer. The words given to us by Jesus in the Our Father form a prayer of supplication. We are asking for things such as “daily bread” and for God to “deliver us from evil.” Sure we are united in our prayer request, but the words simply do not express that concept explicitly. A far better point of unity would be when we recite the Creed. It is at that point that we are praying a prayer of Christian unity – coming together in a verbal confession of faith. So the symbol of holding hands is misplaced within the Mass.

But besides that, the Liturgy already provides us a physical symbol of Christian unity in the Exchange of Peace. You can shake hands, hug, kiss, or offer any other tasteful symbol of unity at this point of the Mass, and the rubrics actually specifically call for such actions. Why introduce an unnecessary gesture into the wrong point of the Mass when the symbol is already present in the appropriate place.

And anyway, the hand-holding just looks plain silly. The congregation stretches into the aforementioned Twister positions; old ladies lose their balance; young kids are stretched out like rubber bands; people stand in the aisles trying to link up with the other side of the congregation, sometimes only able to grasp at fingertip. Is this really liturgically desirable? Does this add or subtract from the solemnity of the Mass? We all need to step back and really look at what this practice has produced.

The Church provides for us the liturgical rites and practices that shape proper Christian worship with the desire that we might worship as one Body. The Liturgy of the Mass is not ours to add to or subtract from as we please. It is not our place to manipulate the rites of the Mass for our own purposes. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is not “family game night” where we get to decide how we want to engage in each activity. I think it is time to roll up the Twister mats and put away our games.


  1. Very good points here. I am on the fence about this topic as well. Occasionally when I choose not to hold hands, I feel the same eyes on me, disappointed that I would reject them in such a way. As a child, I know this part of the mass was particularly distracting as my sister and I would swing our arms back while the priest prayed, flinging them forward and up as we joined in and said "for the Kingdom, the Power..."

  2. I am one of those who have always closed my eyes and clasp my hands during Our Father Prayer, I am speaking to Him and I know that any hand holding I do from one thrust towards me, is a false gesture of agreement on my part. However, if someone grabs my hand after they are clasped and my eyes are shut, I will accept it because I feel they must need something they see in me..